Michael Arpino '12

Hometown: Knoxville, TN
Major: History
Senior Study Title: “The New Navy and America’s Rise as a World Power, 1880-1919”
Advisor: Dr. Aaron Astor

Thesis Abstract

When Michael Arpino ’12 first began thinking about his Senior Study, he had a list of topics he wanted to incorporate.

First, the history major wanted to focus on military history, a topic in which he has long had an interest.

He also wanted to include information about the life and work of his personal hero, Theodore Roosevelt, who served as president of the United States from 1901 until 1909.

Finally, he wanted to focus on a topic that included “swashbuckling adventure stories,” namely stories about the United States Navy.

“The story of the U.S. Navy is about as adventurous and swashbuckling as it gets, at times,” Arpino explained.

While the list might seem like a tall order for some, Arpino was able to incorporate all three of those interests in his Senior Study, titled “The New Navy and America’s Rise as a World Power, 1880-1919.”

The 69-page thesis details the development of the U.S. Navy between the early 1880s and the tail end of World War I, around 1919. Arpino also explores Roosevelt’s role in broadening and upgrading the U.S. Navy during his two terms as president.

In his Senior Study, Arpino outlines three major principles from Alfred Thayer Mahan’s 1890 book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, and examines how closely the U.S. Navy adhered to those principles from 1880 until 1919.

These three principles include:

  1. In order for a nation to achieve growth and prosperity, it must maintain a powerful blue-water navy to secure and defend
    merchant shipping and to open new trading opportunities.
  2. For a nation to remain secure in its wealth, it must be capable of projecting naval power close to shore and far away.
  3. In belligerent actions against other nations, the blockade is a potentially decisive factor in achieving victory.

“The primary recurring and heavily emphasized element of (Mahan’s) initial discussion … is the assertion that control of the seas - the guiding principle of the concept of sea power as a way to bring a nation to greatness - is necessary to protect seaborne shipping and trade interests first and foremost,” Arpino wrote in his thesis. “Mahan acknowledged that the United States, at the time, lacked colonial possessions that would simultaneously require the use of a large navy as well as serve as refueling stations for one. He also pointed out that, based on his own experiences and knowledge of blockading during the Civil War, the U.S. Navy's best option for securing American interests would be by becoming a force effective at both setting and neutralizing blockades.”

Within this context, Arpino argues that the U.S. Navy was instrumental in setting the stage for the United States’ rise as a global power and that there was a “symbiotic relationship” between the developing needs of the country and the evolving use of the U.S. Navy.

Arpino admits he “wasn’t treading on particularly revolutionary ground” with his work – many historians have discussed the relationship between the U.S. Navy’s development and the United States’ growth in importance on the world stage.

However, Arpino’s advisor, MC Assistant Professor of History Dr. Aaron Astor, said that despite the fact that it was a traditional topic, he knew that Arpino would be able to identify some creative new approaches to it.

“I was not disappointed, as Michael both expanded upon the strategic significance of Alfred Mahan and connected his thinking to larger
commercial and political questions surrounding the country at the time,” Astor said.

Additionally, throughout the process, Arpino, who has aspirations of becoming a history professor, said he learned quite a bit about naval history.

“Specifically, I learned a great deal about the importance of a navy in protecting trade interests and the extremely vital role of those interests in regards to global conflict, which I was previously unaware of,” he said, noting that he found his topic “ridiculously interesting, so reading through my research and actually doing the work was an absolute pleasure.”

Although Astor already knew of Mahan and had a general understanding of the Navy’s importance in the Spanish American War and World War I, he said he learned from Arpino’s Senior Study.

“I had virtually no knowledge of just how the Navy reached that point of readiness before the 1890s and the kinds of obstacles it faced,” Astor said. “I also learned quite a bit about how ideological the battle over the Navy’s role in America’s armed forces would
be. It was the synthesis that made the project so strong – connecting internal governmental disputes to larger geo-political and economic debates – that stretched both Michael and myself during this process.”

Astor was so impressed with Arpino’s Senior Study – particularly his thorough research and lucid writing style – that he recommended it for the library’s permanent collection.

“He integrated institutional, ideological and even a bit of social history into a graduate-quality work of scholarship,” Astor said. “Through this project, Michael developed confidence in his ability to ask sharp and relevant questions of the sort that make the historian’s craft possible. This is what we try to do with the Senior Study in history: turn a simple and discreet research project into a longer-term investigation that yields newer and more complex avenues for study.”